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RAVINDRANATH .

India,

Ravindranath “Ravi” is turning villages and communities in flood-ravaged regions into institutions prepared to predict, confront, and cope with floods, turning a one-time calamity into opportunities for people to create new and alternative livelihoods.

This profile below was prepared when Ravindranath was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

Ravindranath “Ravi” is turning villages and communities in flood-ravaged regions into institutions prepared to predict, confront, and cope with floods, turning a one-time calamity into opportunities for people to create new and alternative livelihoods.




THE NEW IDEA

Working extensively in the Brahmaputra-Barak basin in the upper stretches of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Ravi’s model incorporates local mechanisms to facilitate accurate warning systems; river levels and rainfall data-sharing processes concerning river levels through River Basin Friends, a network of 6,000 volunteers; alternative livelihoods that harness the forces unleashed by the flood cycles instead of succumbing to its fury; issues of health and shelter; and, dialogue with the government to drive policy.

Propounding the philosophy of “co-existence with floods” Ravi’s model is designed to address every stage of the flood cycle and make productive use of the time during and after. His Early Warning Network System is a community-managed process involving local and regional data-sharing and simple technologies to measure water levels and land contours to accurately forecast flash floods. Warnings are then transmitted throughout the region.

Ravi provides disaster mitigation solutions by introducing alternative crops suitable for cultivation during “safe” months including innovations of creeper varieties of vegetables, highly profitable livestock breeding such as pig farming, a seed bank, and forty markets during the dry periods to move people away from government promoted welfare programs like food-for-work.




THE PROBLEM

The Brahmaputra Valley is ravaged by annual floods between the months of May and August. Between 1954 and 2004, Assam experienced twelve major floods, the last affecting 28.5 million hectares of land, 10,560 villages and 15 to 17 million people. In 2000, the waters rose as high as 30 feet. The situation is similar in neighboring Nepal, Bangladesh, and the northern hill state of Bhutan, where the river passes through on its way down from its source in Tibet. The effects of global warming, glacial cloudbursts, and unseasonal or heavy precipitation are factors beyond human control. However, there are several man-made reasons that have increased the incidence of floods in the region and other parts of India.

India’s northeastern region is drained by the Brahmaputra, the world’s fourth largest river and the second largest waterway in the country. It rises in southern Tibet, flows through China, India, and Bangladesh for 2,880 km, and reaches the Bay of Bengal through a joint channel with the Ganga. Between the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh and Bangladesh, the river runs for 700 km, with stretches as wide as 14 km. Carrying more water per unit area than any other river in the world, the Brahmaputra basin, with hundreds of tributaries and distributaries, forms one of the world’s most dynamic and complex fluvial systems, creating one of the major biodiversity hot spots in the world.

With 40 percent of its land susceptible to perennial floods and erosion, the Brahmaputra Valley represents one of the most hazard-prone regions in India. Of the twenty-three districts in the northeastern state of Assam, twenty-one are flooded annually by waters striking in sudden surge, washing away villages, lives, property, and livelihoods. The intensifying floods in Assam can be attributed to massive deforestation, intense land use pressure, and rapid population growth, along with ad hoc flood control measures.

Experts fear the rising spectrum of climate change may spark conflict between the nations the river passes through. As global warming intensifies, the rising temperature in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where the river originates, will result in faster melting of Himalayan glaciers and larger inflows of water into the Brahmaputra. The downstream region, including the Brahmaputra basin, bears the maximum brunt. The water load comes to the basin and blocks the drainage system with silt, sedimentary rocks, sand, and mining debris. With a population of over 600 million people living in the region, there is considerable pressure on the region’s resources. The most important fallout from such disputes is the lack of data and information sharing on common rivers to facilitate flood forecasting and water quality control.

In 2000, India accused China of withholding information of the river’s status in the run up to landslides in China-occupied Tibet, causing flooding in northeastern India and Bangladesh. More than 240 Indian River systems pass through Bangladesh, yet India does not share data with Bangladesh. Each year more than 10,000 people are displaced due to floods, and some 6,000 people illegally cross the border into India every day.

The lack of an integrated river basin management policy is a major systemic problem. Structural measures, mainly embankments, have been used as the only measure against flooding. Designs are faulty, leading to frequent flash floods and breaching. In the Assam area alone, there were 256 breaches in 2003, each affecting more than 100 villages at a time. If there is plugging, it is with sand, a material unfit to withstand the pressure of large volumes of water. The two government departments—Embankments & Dykes and Irrigation & Flood Control—have failed to work in coordination with regard to the length of 4,500 km of embankments along the Northeast. Corruption involving the misappropriation of funds is also rife in the departments.

Adding to the faulty engineering designs is the failure on the part of the government to institute early warning systems or conduct a contour mapping of the area. Radio and TV are the only means of communication—the majority of rural and tribal populations do not own either, and a large part of the population fails to comprehend the warnings issued by the government. There is government suppression of information to avoid public unrest. Dam operators are not specific in their “warning announcements,” instead they pass off sudden floods as “natural” rather than admit to their mistakes. A recent example is the Gujarat floods of 2006, which occurred because engineer’s suppressed information on water levels in the state’s Ukai Dam. The warning systems need to be reliable and demystified for the common villager to understand where the flood waters will hit first.

Repeated inundations have shattered the fragile agro-economic base of the region, displacing huge numbers of people, leading to a loss of livelihoods and dignity in entire communities. The government declared a significant portion of the hilly upstream areas “protected forests,” leaving migratory communities to move along the bank of the river during floods rather than into the forests. The Mising tribe, an indigenous community of proud people, have turned into rickshaw-pullers over the last decade. Poor drainage systems resulted in villages remaining waterlogged for long periods of time and led to disruptions with long-term economic and social consequences. Sand-casting due to siltation results in loss of fertility for land, which take more than six years to be reclaimed for agricultural use.

Holistic solutions, in which social, human, and ecological considerations are given appropriate weight, are needed. Strengthening the scientific and technical information base, application of appropriate technologies, and pooling of transborder resources are other aspects that require urgent attention. The greatest need is strong political will and participation in this change.




THE STRATEGY

The success of Ravi’s strategy lies in his application of homegrown technologies and a labyrinth network of volunteers involving village communities and youth organizations. As he says, “It’s a people’s system—person-to-person, community-to-community—and each component is critical for survival.”

Ravi began work in the 1990s in Upper Assam—in the districts of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur—inhabited by the Hajong, Mising, Sonowal, Bodo, Dewri, Koibarta, and Mallahs, the most impoverished communities of Assam. Realizing that the root cause of their marginalization lay in the destruction of age-old livelihoods and habitats due to increased flooding and unfriendly policies, he set up the Duryog Pratirodh Samiti (Disaster Preparedness Committee) to develop the Early Warning Network System to predict flash floods.

The committee comprises a central team and a group of volunteers. He identified forty points on the banks of the Brahmaputra and its five tributaries in the two districts where volunteers, drawn from villages along the route, take regular readings. Each volunteer is equipped with a walkie-talkie or mobile phone, a rain gauge, a river water level gauge, a torch, and sometimes, a bicycle. The volunteers pass the information to the central team, which analyses the data to determine possible villages that may be hit by flood in the next hours or days.

This information is transmitted to downstream districts and to four to five districts in Bangladesh. Thanks to intensive contour mapping of the area by the volunteer groups, Ravi calculated that for a distance of 700 km on flat land, flash flood waters take six-and-a-half days to travel. The system is being put in place in upstream Arunachal Pradesh to facilitate accuracy. Local evacuation teams, rescue teams, and disaster management teams are alerted through communication networks, giving populations adequate time to save lives and to reduce property and livestock losses.

In West Bengal, Ravi convinced the government to install sensor switches in each sluice gate of the Farakka Barrage, connected to a master computer. The computer processes the data and transmits the information to village panchayats via mobile phones. He is trying to get the central government to adopt this method.

The Rescue Team comprises volunteers trained for rescue missions, including operating and navigating speed boats and handling minor repairs. They are equipped with mobile phones, high-power rechargeable torches and first-aid medical kits. Ravi is training villagers to make low-cost life jackets from empty plastic mineral water bottles typically thrown away.

To make all this sustainable, Ravi addresses the crucial issues of health and shelter. He offers training in home-grown technologies that ensure safe drinking water during flooding and raise homestead water sources to avoid contamination. His method is successful even in times of devastating flood.

Similarly, plinth elevation is another strategy to combat rising water levels. Ravi has introduced raising the floor of tribal mud houses 6 to 7 feet by replacing traditional wooden pillars with reinforced concrete pillars to ensure complete safety. The villagers constructed elevated earth platforms, where temporary tented shelters can be installed swiftly, complete with specially-designed PVC toilets.

His strong volunteer network, involving 200 student unions, imparts training in flood management, rescue techniques, health and hygiene through pictorial booklets, leaflets, and simple posters. He built a 12,000-strong network of women para-veterinaries and 130 “barefoot” doctors who create awareness of common flood-related diseases, their prevention and their cures. They also distribute low-cost generic medicines from a revolving medicine bank. The 570 villages directly under this program are now 100 percent free of diarrhea and dysentery deaths.

Ravi’s band of paramedics is drawn from village women who have studied to the secondary level. His logic for using women is that they are more successful in gaining access to households. He has collaborated with an Ashoka Fellow to develop a low-cost generic medicine for diarrhea and dysentery.

Ravi also created a buffer food and seed security system (Kangali Bharal) whereby each family contributes a given quantity of rice and paddy per year. The rice is for consumption during periods of crisis, and the paddy is used as alternative seedling for fresh cultivation if those planted earlier are washed away by flood waters.

The resounding success of Ravi’s community pig-breeding project in an area dominated by Hindu and Muslim politicians and bureaucrats has captured wide attention. He first introduced a breed sturdy enough to withstand the vagaries of the region. These pigs are bred in the highlands during flood season and fattened in low-lands to be sold before the cycle starts, generating income that can sustain the people through the non-productive flood season. Since 1998, 30,000 pigs have been bred and sold for consumption by villagers in his project area. To avoid the fall-outs of in-breeding, Ravi started the Revolving Pig System, where every family contributes two piglets to two other families. High-yielding poultry farms, yielding birds with an average weight of 13.2 pounds, is the result of successful cross breeding. Alternative farming crops such as garlic, mustard, peas, and chili have also been introduced and massive farming is being promoted to include smaller kitchen gardens, with seed and support coming from the state government.

Through “Amar Bazaar,” the community market, villagers are learning to create demand for their produce instead of relying on more expensive goods transported from outside. Rather than train them singlehandedly in market economics and dynamics, he encouraged the villagers, primarily women, to invite traders from outside to rent space and observe how they did business. Then he urged them to try their hand at setting up their own markets, selling agricultural produce, yarns, cocoons, spices, woven fabrics, tea, local brew, and so on. The idea has grown into forty such markets, with buyers from outside visiting as well. A federation of these markets is being formed with the women traders planning to buy trucks to take their ware to other far flung areas.

Ravi envisions a series of steps for the future. A college level structure for his local disaster management university is in place, with plans to link with other such institutions in the world. He is also setting up five local pathological labs for diagnostic tests like pregnancy and celebral malaria, so people don’t have to travel great distances for tests.

Thanks to Ravi, the state government of neighboring West Bengal has started a website to disseminate information and districts in West Bengal and Nepal have replicated his model in their flood-prone areas. On the national front, his model is operationalized in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat by flood management expert Himanshu Thakkar. His innovative homestead-plinth elevation technology is being implemented by the central government under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The eastern states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Tripura have adopted his alternative livelihoods approach.

Internationally, Bangladesh adopted the early warning system and processes, the Mekong Valley and Indonesia have imported the home-plinth elevation technology and seed bank program, and the model is being taught to students at the premier Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Further plans include setting up a university, Brahmaputra Vidyapeeth, to teach local methods of flood control, management and transborder conflict issues at affordable costs. The aim is to set up a cadre of competent and knowledgeable professionals who, in turn, will lobby with governments. Work has already begun on the project.

Ravi believes his model is applicable, with modifications, to suit geographies anywhere in the world. He is networking with international river basin groups to build consensus and pressure governments to come together in dialogue. He set up the South Asian Himalayan and Peninisular River Alliance after the tsunami to advise engineers in Bangladesh who are committed to promoting flood control measures.




THE PERSON

Raised in the railway town of Asansol in the state of West Bengal, Ravi graduated with a first-class in Telecom Engineering from the George Telegraph Institute. During college, he was an organizer in the railway trade union movement and fought for increased labor wages.

In 1985 he completed a course in Community Development and Management Studies from the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore. Two years later, he opted for a one-year program in Rural Development and Appropriate Technology from the premier Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, specializing in integrated rural energy systems. The same year he joined the social movement initiated by Bunker and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Aruna Roy in the Tilonia Ajmer District of Rajastan and was hugely influenced and inspired by them.

In 1989 he moved to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh where he was a founding member of the Arunachal Pradesh Land Use Board and Arunachal Pradesh Energy Development Agency. He is currently on the advisory committee of the Ministry of Rural Development of the state.

In 1993, Ravi set up the Rural Volunteer Centre in Akajan in Dhemaji district of Assam at the invitation of the villagers and the River Basin Friends network. The villagers donated a plot of land where the headquarters of RVC stands today. He has authored several books and manuals on flood control measures and continues to travel in India and abroad teaching and spreading his methods. He welcomes experts working in other flood-prone regions to visit the state and share their ideas.




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